06 April 2014

Random wanderings in the Basler Jura

Time: 4 hours
Grading: T1
Height gain: 590 metres
Height loss: 600 metres

Arlesheim – Schartenflue – Gempen - Liestal
It's a long time since I did a walk in the Jura hills, and I have never hiked in the canton of Basel-Land. With a dodgy weather forecast for Central Switzerland and a good one for everywhere else, this weekend seems like a good opportunity to broaden my horizons a bit. I sit down on Saturday evening with my maps and guidebooks, and choose a hike from Balsthal to Liestal over the Passwang, already planned last autumn but never accomplished.

On Sunday morning, I wake as expected to grey skies and warm drizzle. The plants that I bought yesterday for my balcony are getting their first dose (no doubt the first of many) of Lucerne rain, and drips of freshly fallen rain are hanging off the railings. I check the weather site again, and get confirmation that if I get away from the central Swiss mountains, I should find the sun without too much trouble. But half an hour later in Olten, where I must change trains to get to Balsthal, it is still every bit as grey and miserable, and the hills over which I had planned to walk are lost in thick cloud. I improvise, decide to stay on the train and see if the weather is any better on the north side of the Jura. I recently saw a description in a magazine of a walk from Arlesheim to Liestal, on the outskirts of Basel: this should be a decent alternative to my originally planned route.

It proves to be a wise move. The train emerges from the long Hauenstein tunnel into a landscape which is still grey, but much less so than on the southern side of the hills. It is not raining here and, as the train approaches Basel, the sun breaks through. A fifteen-minute tram ride takes me back out of the city to Arlesheim, a village-suburb that still leans towards the village end of the scale and has a pleasant feel to it. 

The path leaves Arlesheim up a green valley
I have no map, but can remember the names of the main waypoints along my intended route: Schartenflue, Schauenbergflue, Bienenberg. I expect the way to be well signposted and, in this area close to the city, there is not much that can go wrong even if I get lost. I leave the village along a lane that takes me to the Ermitage gardens, in a little valley below the castle of Schloss Birseck. I climb through woodland above a number of ponds, finally leaving the grounds of the gardens to continue up the valley, a typical Jura valley surrounded by low but steep hills, rounded and wooded above limestone shelves and cliffs. I receive an odd text message from Swisscom, welcoming me to France… on arriving home, I check on a map and see that the nearest bit of France is almost 9 kilometres away…

The forest track that I am following continuously though not steeply, before levelling out at an altitude of about 600 metres, just below the Schartenflue, my first summit of the day. This side of the hill is a vertical cliff face, topped with a tall observation tower. Now I leave the forest track for a narrow path that winds steeply up below the cliffs, then traverses round to the gentler northern side of the hill before climbing to its summit at 759 metres. There is a restaurant here in addition to the viewing tower; I decide not to pay to go up the tower, given that there is very little in the way of a view. Away southwards, the higher hills of the Jura are still in the clouds, comforting me in my decision to alter my plans.

Looking towards the Jura from the summit of the Schartenflue... not much view today.
Like many hills in the Jura, the Schartenflue is very steep on one side, but hardly a hill at all on the other. Behind the cliffs of the southern face is a broad, wooded plateau, and the next quarter of an hour of my walk is completely flat. I arrive at a junction of paths, none of which indicates the direction to the Schauenbergflue, my next destination. One signpost does point to Bad Schauenberg though, which looks like it should be the right direction. At the next junction, neither the Flue nor the Bad gets a mention, so I take pot luck. A broad, green field dotted with little thickets of bushes makes a nice place for a lunch break, although the day is not warm enough to really make the most of it.

The path winds round to the right, not really the direction I was expecting. At the next signpost, none of the names ring any bells at all. Here, a young woman on a mountain bike asks me if the path I have come from goes to Schönmatt… and for once, I have to admit shame-facedly that I don't have a clue, as I am completely (though quite happily) lost. The woman points in the direction in which I am heading and reassures me: "it's OK, you're almost at Hochwald". I am none the wiser…

A lane brings me to a cross-roads on the outskirts of a village, where at least Liestal, my final destination, is signposted. Way away to the left, diametrically opposed to where I am going, I see a hill which can only be the Schauenbergflue. I have gone off in a totally wrong direction. Back home with my maps, I see that I should have followed the mountain bike woman's route and headed for Schönmatt, which would have been on the way to the Schauenbergflue. Schönmatt was even mentioned in my magazine article, I just hadn't remembered it.

A narrow path drops down steeply now, shortcutting the switchbacks of a fairly major road up which motorbikes and sports cars roar noisily. I cross a wooded area, then emerge onto a wide, flat, grassy plain dotted with fruit trees. The trees are in full blossom, a dazzling display of white against the green grass and blue-grey sky. Here, I start to meet large numbers of people coming the other way, all walking dogs. Nothing strange about Sunday afternoon dog-walkers, but their numbers make me wonder. Does Liestal have some kind of dog hiking club, maybe? This doggy crowd is not particularly friendly: whereas hikers invariable say hello as they meet you, not one of these Labrador, German shepherd, terrier or poodle walkers so much as looks at me. A bit further on, there is a checkpoint where the dog-walkers are giving their names (or the dogs' names maybe) to two enthusiastic-looking women with big, hearty voices. It seems to be some kind of doggy orienteering competition: I pass another similar checkpoint a bit further on, where an assortment of dogs are performing balancing acts on see-saws erected specially for the purpose.

My route branches off to the right, leaving the dogs to orient themselves and their owners, and dropping steeply down again into a narrow, deep-sided valley. A rather monotonous half hour along a featureless forest track eventually brings me to farmland on the outskirts of what I assume is Liestal, but in fact is Frenkendorf, a neighbouring village. It takes another twenty minutes through the grounds of a large psychiatric hospital to reach my destination.

At Liestal station, my train is announced as running twenty minutes late "because of animals on the tracks". Disoriented dogs, maybe?

30 March 2014

Around the Hallwilersee

Time: 4.5 hours
Grading: T1
Height gain: 200 metres
Height loss: 200 metres

Mosen – Schloss Hallwil - Mosen

Spring is definitely here now, with the clocks going forward and temperatures right up around 20 degrees. Winter attempted a comeback last weekend though; it was a short-lived attempt, but it left a fair bit of fresh snow above a thousand metres. Having mentally switched to summer mode, I am little inclined to get my snowshoes out again, so decide on a low-level walk around the Hallwilersee. This medium-sized lake lies in the Seetal valley, about 25 kilometres north of Lucerne on the way to Lenzburg, and can be easily walked around in a shortish day out.

We switched to summer time overnight, and on waking up, I am somewhat confused as to the actual time. One of my two watches says it's 6:40, the other one says it's 7:40, while my iPhone insists that in fact it is a much more civilized 8:40. I suspect that the phone has adjusted itself automatically and correctly, that I moved one of my watches back an hour instead of moving it forward, and that I forgot the other one altogether… I leave the house at 9:15 (or possibly 8:15, or even 7:15… it's only when I get to the station that I finally get confirmation of the proper time), and a short train ride later find myself in the tiny village of Mosen, at the southern end of the lake.

The air is considerably chillier here then in town and, after setting out in a T-shirt, I soon have to extract a fleece from my backpack. I walk through Mosen’s small camp site to the lakeside, from where the view stretches northwards all the way to the far end of the lake, its calm, surprisingly light blue waters bounded by low hills on either side.

The first part of the walk is lacking in any real interest. After a short lakeside introduction, the path soon veers inland to avoid a nature reserve, crossing an area of marshland before reaching the pretty little village of Aesch, where every other house seems to double as a Hofladen, or farm shop, their garages all adorned with a small array of local produce.

For a while, the broad, stony track stays a fair way back from the banks of the lake; the shoreline has been colonised by a series of expensive-looking houses, all set well back from the water behind large lawns. Spring is working its magic, with a wide variety of buds, blossom and berries to admire, although the larger trees are still devoid of any kind of greenery, waiting for some signal to set the budding process in motion. There are lots of people out on the path: couples strolling, Nordic walkers sweating, bikers biking. I catch up with a family of four; the parents and older child are on bikes, while the youngest child has left the trailer in which she is being transported and is lagging behind on foot, dawdling and playing with pebbles that she is picking up from the path. As I draw level with the child, who can be no more than three or four, her mother calls back: “Nadine! Are you coming?” The child looks up, shouts “Yes, mummy”, then, under her breath, “No!”

The path finally returns to the waterside just before Seerose, where there is a rather nice-looking hotel advertising itself as a “Resort and Spa”. I wonder about the terminology used here… Blackpool is a resort, as is Le Touquet… but can a single building by a lake in the middle of rural Aargau really call itself a resort? Along this stretch of the shore, I also see the first examples of one of this lake’s main features: small, wooden houses built on stilts above the water. Some of these are no more than rudimentary huts, but others are quite elaborate, complete with balconies overlooking the water. There are little groups of these wooden buildings all round the lake; I have not seen them anywhere else in Switzerland. Away southwards, the mountains beyond Lucerne are half-hidden in the haze of what has become a warm late morning.

I approach the northern end of the lake, where the bounding hills are somewhat higher than further south – although the landscape remains relatively bland and unexciting. Surprisingly, vineyards run down to the lakeside here, the west-facing slopes presumably giving just enough sunlight to keep the vines happy. On the numerous beaches, families are picnicking and cooking sausages over open fires, while the small drinks kiosks at the official bathing areas are all open, although I do not see anyone actually in the water. It’s the first weekend of spring that has been warm enough for these activities, and people are making the most of it.

Looking southwards from the northern end of the lake, halfway point of the walk
At the northern extremity of the lake, I come to Schloss Hallwil, a perfectly-preserved medieval castle, complete with towers, battlements and a perfect moat formed by two arms of the little river that feeds the lake. It’s all rather twee though… give me a good old ruined Welsh castle or a Scottish one full of ghosts any day. The castle can be visited, but not between November and the end of March… it will reopen for the summer season the day after tomorrow, so I have to give the visit a miss.

At Schloss Hallwil
I walk round the outside of the castle, where a pair of ducks is lazily guarding the moat. Now I turn southwards, back along the western bank of the lake. Once again, the path turns inland for a while to avoid a protected area. Two teenage girls come the other way, chatting noisily about boys. One of them is very insistently telling her friend that she is MOST DEFINITELY NOT in love with Adrian, which presumably means that she is. 

At Birrwil, my route returns to the water’s edge, which it will now follow all the way back to Mosen. The lakeside restaurants here and at Beinwil, the next village, are doing an absolutely roaring trade: these first sunny Sundays of the season must be among the best of the year for trade, with everyone keen to get out for the first outdoor lunch of the year. 

One of the many little huts built over the water 
All along this side of the lake, the water is a strange, muddy reddish colour, as though its bed was made of clay. The earth in the fields is not at all red, though, and I wonder if the colour is the result of pollution. Apparently not though, as numerous people – clearly locals – are fishing off the banks of the lake. I buy a jar of local honey from a table that has been set up by the path, in the middle of a field. There is nobody there, just the table with five or six pots of honey on it, and a slot where you can put your money. Only in Switzerland…

Up ahead, the snowy mountains get closer, though with the hazy atmosphere, they are still too indistinct to add any interest to the many unsuccessful photos that I take. I have covered 20 kilometres, and my feet are beginning to complain, unused to such distances so early in the season. The path runs prettily along the tree-covered shoreline, eventually bringing me back to my starting point at Mosen after four and a half hours’ walking. It has not been an exciting day out by any means, but this is not the ideal time of year for hiking and, with that in mind, it has been a pleasant enough day.

16 March 2014

A short walk over the Sonnenberg

Time: 2.25 hours
Grading: WT1
Height gain: 390 metres
Height loss: 300 metres

Luzern – Sonnenberg - Chrüzhöchi - Obernau

This weekend's weather, while not especially bad, has not been particularly hike-friendly. The best of the weather has been on Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon, with an intervening episode of grey (though dry) murk that did not make a full day hike very appealing on either day. Around Sunday lunchtime, the sky begins to clear and the sun comes out. By the time I have finished eating, there is still plenty of time for an afternoon walk over the Sonnenberg, a low ridge that rises west of the city centre.

I set off at two, on a walk that definitely falls into the gentle stroll rather than the arduous hike category. No need for any trains or buses here, the walk starts right at my front door. I go through the streets of the Neustadt, Lucerne's "new town", new only in the sense that it isn't as old as the old town. After two years living in a soulless, lifeless suburb, I am still somewhat in awe of my newly-adopted home. The variety of shops and restaurants is amazing; in a few minutes of walking, I pass a Moroccan restaurant, a Spanish-Italian delicatessen, a shop selling violins, several upmarket, arty furniture shops, a rather less upmarket kebab house, a music shop specialising in woodwind instruments… and I could go on. This part of the city is largely ignored by the thousands of tourists who visit Lucerne every day, and yet its early 20th-century architecture is fascinating. Just raise your eyes above street level, and you are rewarded with a festival of towers and windows, turrets and balconies of every conceivable shape and size. Spring is most definitely in the air; the playgrounds echo to the noise of excited children (and some scolding parents), and buds are in view everywhere. Along the Bruchstrasse, the tall trees that line both sides of the streets are sprouting a haze of yellowy-greenness, as if ready to burst into leaf at any moment.

The interesting architecture of Lucerne's Neustadt
At the end of the Bruchstrasse, I leave the streets of the town centre behind and begin the climb up towards the Sonnenberg. Steep at first, the broad path heads up through woodland, beyond which the upper parts of the city are visible. I am reminded of my first spring in Switzerland, sixteen years ago. On my own in Neuhcâtel, I would spend my evenings wandering by the lakeside or along the forest tracks just at the periphery of the town. A long-forgotten little pleasure that I would do well to rediscover. The houses to my left, half-seen through the trees, look quite grand at first, but then they give way to the tower-blocks of Obergütsch, where teenagers are making lots of noise on mopeds, as teenagers do… From way away to the south, the breeze brings the chanting fans in the football stadium. The loudest and most enthusiastic chant seems to be "FCZ! FCZ! FCZ!", suggesting that the visiting FC Zürich may be giving their hosts a hard time.

At 600 metres, the path leaves the forest to emerge into the warm afternoon sunlight. Back behind me, the Rigi appears while, to the south, the Pilatus is an impressive sight, its northern and eastern faces still well covered in snow. To the north are the unlovely suburbs of Emmen and Littau. Although I have only climbed 250 metres from the town centre, the trees up here are still firmly in winter: no sign of any buds or blossom yet at this altitude. It's a surprising contrast given the small elevation gain from one place to the other. More gently uphill now, I reach the "top" of the Sonnenberg at 682 metres. This is not the highest point, but it is the hill's focal point, with a busy restaurant and the top station of an ancient-looking funicular that comes up from the town of Kriens down below in the valley.

The Pilatus from the Sonnenberg

The vintage funicular
I continue uphill to the Chrüzhöchi along the still gently-rising ridge. The path runs through an avenue of tall trees, the afternoon sun casting deep, dark shadows that contrast with the vivid green of the early spring grass. The chanting from the football ground has become more distant but also more animated, and the Zürich fans have temporarily abandoned encouragement of their own team to insult the opposition: "Scheiss Luzern! Scheiss Luzern" can now be distinctly heard. Maybe the tide of the match has turned in favour of the home team. Ahead of me, an old man leaves the path to pick up a fallen branch that is lying on the grass, about 20 metres off to the left. He brings the branch back to the path, dragging it behind him. I wonder what he is doing; the branch is not particularly heavy-looking, but it must be three or four metres long, surely he isn't going to take it home with him? He continues to drag the branch along ahead of me for five minutes but then, as the path leaves the open, grassy area to plunge back into the trees, throws it off to the side, into the undergrowth. Seems he was just being obsessively tidy, as the Swiss sometimes can be.

Avenue of trees on the Chrüzhöchi
The path is quieter now; most of the families have turned back, although there are still plenty of joggers and mountain bikers. Northwards, a break in the trees gives a good view up the Reuss valley, its urban nature very evident from this high vantage point, the string of dormitory suburbs touching each other with little or no green space in between. In the other direction, the blue Sempachersee is clearly visible, as is the Emmental valley, running off towards the rising hills of the Napf region. The close proximity of the city, though invisible, is still very much in evidence because of the constant background hum of traffic, on both sides of the ridge.

Looking over Kriens towards the Rigi
Now for the descent, steeply downhill on a long staircase made from logs. Ahead, beyond the Ränggloch where the main road crosses over a dip in the ridge, I can see the continuing path rising back up towards Eigenthal and Malters, to be explored on another day. The path turns eastwards now, beginning its final descent to the bus stop at Obernau. A paraglider floats slowly and effortlessly overhead, while two mountain bikers hurtle anything but effortlessly past, juddering and fighting to keep control of their machines on the steep, stony path. I reach the road by a field where the paraglider has landed and has started the intricate work of folding up his sail without getting all the numerous bits of string tangled up. The road is busy with cars streaming out of town after the football match, a few honking horns suggesting that Luzern must have come out on top. I just miss a bus, but public transport is good around here and, even on a Sunday afternoon, I only have to wait ten minutes for the next one in the warm sun. Spring really has arrived.

09 March 2014

From Nidwalden into Obwalden, from winter into spring

Time: 5 hours
Grading: WT1
Height gain: 610 metres
Height loss: 1260 metres

Wirzweli – Vorder Gummen - Ächerli – Schwendiflue - Kerns

Spring is in the air. The cafés in Lucerne have brought tables out onto the pavements, people have been digging into the depths of their wardrobes in a desperate search for lighter clothing, items of furniture on balconies have emerged from under layers of protective plastic sheeting. But up in the mountains, winter is hanging on. The last few days of February and the first few of March have brought regular falls of fresh snow, and despite weekend temperatures that are rapidly heading towards 20 degrees, the snowshoe season is not yet over.

I have set my sights on the Schlierengrat, up above Sarnen; a long ridge that looks like it should offer good views of the Pilatus and, at an altitude of over 1700 metres, still enough snow. I set off from home unreasonably late, taking the lazy option when faced with the choice between a 7:30 or a 9:45 start to make the bus connection from Sarnen to the starting point of the walk.

I get off to a bad start. At Lucerne station, the Interlaken train (which I have to catch) and the Engelberg train are lined up next to each other at adjacent platforms. I arrive with just enough time to go and grab a take-away coffee from the bakery on platform 14… but in my rush to get back to my platform in time, I have a lapse of concentration and get on the Engelberg train by mistake. Soon I am heading merrily up the wrong valley, in the company of Chinese tourists heading for the Titlis instead of Chinese tourists heading for Interlaken.

My original plan is well and truly scuppered; there is no way of getting to Sarnen in time for the bus to Langis, and the next one will be too late. Improvisation is called for. I don't have the right maps for this valley, I will need to stick to the beaten track and to well-marked routes, whatever I do. I decide to return to Wirzweli, where I already did a snowshoe hike in November. I dislike going back to the same place so soon after, but there are plenty of options there, I know the general geography of the area well enough not to need a map, and there is always the possibility of extending the walk westwards from the Ächerlipass down towards Alpnach, Kerns or Sarnen. 

I get off the train at Dallenwil and take the cable car up to Wirzweli, where the usual mock-Alpine style music is oompah-ing out from the loudspeakers at the bottom of the ski runs. Quickly leaving the hustle and bustle of the cable car station, I set up towards the ridge that bounds the southern side of the shelf where the few chalets and restaurants of Wirzweli are located. My first objective is the 1471-metre Horn, at the eastern edge of the ridge. I angle up across the steep slopes below the ridge, quickly gaining height above ski pistes whose snow looks to have seen better days. I was wondering how much snow I would find: on these north-facing slopes there is still plenty, though it has lost its powdery quality under the combined onslaught of the mild weather and yesterday's sun-seeking snowshoers. Over the other side of the valley, the south-facing flank of the Stanserhorn is snow-free practically all the way to the summit.

At first, my way up is in the shade, but at 1370 metres I emerge into the sunlight of what is an unseasonably warm morning. From here to the top of the Horn it's steep and sweaty going, and I am relieved when I finally complete the day's biggest climb and, about 45 minutes after starting to walk, reach the broad summit, unfortunately festooned with a pylon carrying electricity cables over into the next valley.

Here, the view suddenly opens out southwards, and is spectacular. The number of peaks on view is remarkable; I could not begin to name or even count all of them. The real stars of the show are the Walenstöcke, their rocky and snowy buttresses very much "in your face", just across the deep cut of the Engelberg valley. By comparison, the Titlis looks insignificant despite its 800 additional metres of altitude, diminished by being further away.

Walenstöcke and Titlis
My route continues westwards along the wooded Wirzweligrat ridge, just below its crest on the northern side, constantly and gradually climbing until it finally merges from the trees at about 1550 metres. Up ahead is the 1613-metre Gummen, the highest point of today's walk, an elegant, rounded cone of snow when seen from this side. The waymarked route bypasses the hill on its northern side, but it would be a pity not to take in the summit and – why not – have lunch at the top.

Others have had the same idea, of course, and I share the summit with a mixture of walkers and paragliders. The paragliders have spread their vast sails out on the snow-free southern slopes, below a windsock that has been set up. They wait for what seems an eternity, observing the motionless windsock, waiting for the elusive breath of air that will enable them to take off. Then they go, one after the other, first disappearing from sight before rising on the thermals to describe circles above the valley, in front of the imposing mountain backdrop.

The summit of Gummen
Leaving the summit of Gummen, I drop down to a saddle on the ridge, where a ski-lift arrives from down below and there is a makeshift mountain restaurant and open-air bar. Beyond here, the path splits into two, one turning the Ronengrat on its north side, the other southwards. The southern route looks more interesting, as it will continue to offer me views towards the higher mountains, rather than just back down to the village. Immediately, I find myself alone after what has so far been a well-frequented itinerary. There is plenty of evidence that other snowshoers have been this way, but for the next half an hour I see nobody apart from one couple who are eating their packed lunch under a tree. The route traverses across steep slopes where the snow is fighting a valiant rearguard action, but is clearly losing the battle. There are places where for twenty metres at a time, there is no snow cover at all. The path is narrow and there are plenty of tree-roots to clamber over; it is not really ideal snowshoe territory. But eventually the steep landscape gives way to flatter, more open country with, in front of me to the west, the high, white walls of the Arvigrat, descending steeply into the valley ahead.

The snow is fighting a losing battle on these south-facing slopes. In the background, the Brisen.
Now I descend steeply across fields of near-virgin snow which still has some of its powdery quality. I quickly lose 80 metres of altitude before the way flattens out again and turns northwards, passing close beneath the slopes of the Arvigrat. In two places, very fresh-looking avalanches have come down almost to the level of the path: not from today as I would have heard or seen them, but quite probably from yesterday afternoon, when the temperature was equally mild. A rising path takes me past the chalets of Loch, then on to the Ächerlipass, on the cantonal boundary between Nidwalden and Obwalden at an altitude of just below 1400 metres.

At the Ächerlipass... one of those tracks coming down the hillside is mine  :-)
I have several options from here. I could simply go back down eastwards to Wirzweli, but that would mean following my route from November, and the snow looks patchy. I am more interested in the westward options, although I suspect that I will soon run out of snow on the sunnier, western side of the pass. There are two options available, down either to Alpnach or Kerns. The Kerns route is indicated as an hour shorter, and also looks like it will offer more chance of snow, as it stays at altitude for longer than the Alpnach path.

In fact, there is a surprising amount of snow, and I am able to keep my snowshoes on for far longer than I would have expected. The route follows a farm road round the shady northern slopes below the Arvigrat; the road is not used in winter and so has not been snowploughed. The way stays more or less flat until I reach an isolated farm building at 1340 metres, marked on the map as Schwendiflue. Way below in the valley, the Sarnersee appears, its water blue-grey in what has become quite a thick afternoon haze. Now the downhill gradient steepens, the farm lane descending in long zigzags, some of which I am able to shortcut by plunging straight down the hillside, at least while there is still sufficient snow to do so.

At 1150 metres, just below a hairpin bend in the road, I finally run out of snow and have to remove my snowshoes. I have been lucky to have been able to keep them on for so long. Now the going becomes tricky for a while; although the road is free of snow, there are some shady patches where it is covered in sheet ice. But eventually winter loses its grip altogether. Below the farm buildings at Schwändi I briefly lose my way in the middle of a pathless pasture. Had I had the right map with me, I would soon have realised my mistake, but I only have a 1:50,000 map and it only gives a rough idea of the direction in which I need to go. It's easy enough though: the way is clearly downhill rather than up, and soon I am back on track. Way up behind me, a pale moon rises above the snowy towers of the Arvigrat, one of my objectives for the coming summer. I reach civilization at St. Antoni, with its little white church, and twenty minutes later am at the bus stop in the centre of Kerns. 

Between two seasons
The timetable indicates that I have just missed a bus and will have to wait 40 minutes for the next one; alternatively, it's a 30-minute walk to the railway station in Sarnen. I decide to walk it… but as if by magic, a bus appears just as I am about to set off. A satisfying end to a day which did not start as planned, but which certainly made for a nice transition between winter and spring.

23 February 2014

Around the ridges above Melchsee-Frutt

Time: 4 hours
Grading: WT2
Height gain: 610 metres
Height loss: 610 metres

Melchsee-Frutt – Bonistock – Tannalp – Gumm – Erzegg – Melchsee-Frutt

The combination of moving house and a largely snowless winter has kept me away from the mountains (and consequently from this blog) for the last few weeks. Apart from one day on the Rigi in mid-January, I have not set foot in the hills since the end of November. Now though, my move is complete, boxes have been unpacked and pictures hung on the walls, and I can once again start to do other things with my weekends.

The weather forecast suggests that this last Sunday in February (already!) might have great potential. After a mild, sunny Saturday, overnight snow is expected, followed by a warm, sunny Sunday. The forecast proves to be right: I wake to blue skies and residual cloud clearing quickly. From my living room and spare bedroom windows respectively, I can see that the Pilatus and the Rigi have acquired new, white coats: this has to be a day to make the most of.

I do not want to go too far or attempt anything too difficult: my lack of winter sports activities has left me short of fitness, I would be surprised if I could manage more than three or four hundred metres of uphill walking in the snow. I decide on a snowshoe hike from the small ski resort of Melchsee-Frutt: by combining two or three waymarked snowshoe itineraries, I can do a circular route that should make for a satisfying day. I throw together some sandwiches using fresh bread from the excellent local baker, heat up a thermos of tea and, just after nine, am on the train to Sarnen.

At Sarnen, I change to the post bus that runs up the deep-cut Melchtal valley to Stöckalp at its head. The bus is packed full, and I have to take my backpack on my knees… at which point I realise that the organic Schwyz alp cheese that I have used in one of my sandwiches stinks! A pervasive odour of cow shit is emanating from the depths of the backpack and is slowly permeating the whole bus. Like a schoolboy who has just surreptitiously unleashed a silent but deadly fart, I adopt an “attack is the best form of defence” policy and cast accusing looks at my neighbours… The embarrassment continues in the cable-car from Stöckalp up to Frutt, not helped by the fact that we unexpectedly stop halfway up and, for about five minutes, hang there in mid-air, gently and silently swaying, with nothing to do except look at the scenery and wonder where the smell is coming from.

Melchsee-Frutt, like most ski resorts, is not the prettiest of places. Its main feature is a great, rectangular blockhouse of a “Lodge and Spa” which does not exactly blend into the landscape. However, the location of the resort is superb: a broad, flat-bottomed high valley with a frozen, snow-covered lake in the middle, surrounded on most sides by an impressive circle of imposing, rocky mountains.

On the way up to the Bonistock, looking across to the Glogghüs
I quickly leave the prepared winter walking paths that radiate out from the resort, and set off uphill towards the Bonistock, my first objective of the day and the highest point of the walk at 2168 metres. Conditions could not be better: the overnight snowfall has covered everything with a fresh layer of powder which is now sparkling in the morning sun under a deep blue sky. Things also look pretty good for the numerous skiers who are weaving their way down the slope to my left, the quality of the snow looks perfect. The snowshoe trail runs quite steeply uphill, well to the right of the ski slope, close to the edge of the long line of cliffs that run along the whole northern side of the valley. Just before the summit of the Bonistock with its cable-car station and noisy, crowded restaurant, my route rejoins the ski slope itself for a short distance.
Leaving the Bonistock behind, the way ahead now breaks free of the ski infrastructure and becomes rather more challenging than it has been until now. The waymarked snowshoe trail has to detour round the north side of the Tannenschild, a steep, pointed little peak that soars elegantly up into the blue sky. The northern side of the Tannenschild is a steep, shady slope of deep snow, somewhat exposed; a fall here would certainly result in a long, cold slither down to the ski-slope some fifty metres below. This passage is quite short though, before I emerge back onto flatter ground and onto the broad, sunny top of the ridge. Down to my right below the cliffs, the Tannensee appears, another frozen lake, strangely flat under its covering of snow in the middle of a tumbled landscape of snowy humps.

The steep traverse round the north side of the Tannenschild, with the Hohmad up ahead

My route ahead descends to the farming hamlet of Tannalp, close to the lake. I know that at some point I am going to have to leave the ridge, but the line of cliffs seems to be unbroken and the snowshoe tracks appear to continue up ahead, climbing towards the rounded white summit of the Hohmad. Then the ground dips down to the saddle of Chringen, the only point where there is a small gap in the cliffs and it is possible to get down to lower ground. The way down looks alarmingly steep though, and I hesitate for a while as to whether or not I really want to take a chance or if I should turn back. The steep passage is short, and I can see easier terrain not far below, but it does seem very steep indeed. There is a couple just ahead of me, and I stay back a little to see how they will fare. The man goes down first, carefully, sideways for the first two or three big steps before turning to face the slope and continuing straight downhill. The woman decides to take off her snowshoes, which proves to be a bad move: her walking boots fail to grip on the first step, and immediately she is sliding off down the steep slope, stopping some 20 metres further down in deep snow, and laughing. This reassures me: even if I fall, I now know that nothing bad can happen, that the gradient is not steep enough and the snow not hard enough for the consequences to be serious. I decide to keep my snowshoes on, negotiate the first two or three steps in a semi-seated position, and in no time at all I am past the tricky patch and back on more normal ground, albeit still steep. In icy conditions, this short passage would be very tricky indeed.

Steeper than it looks here... the way down off the ridge at Chringen
Below the steep section, under an overhanging rock face, there is a stone bench facing right into the midday sun. It is a dream location for lunch, too good to miss. I apply plenty of factor 50 sun cream (but forget the tip of my nose, as I will see when I get home in the evening) and sit back to eat my smelly cheese sandwich as I look out at the Wendenstöcke, Mähren and Tällistock across the valley, all close to 3,000 metres in height and covered in a dusting of fresh snow. A woman ski-tourer labours up the slope towards me, sees that I am eating and comments with a smile: "Mmm, a sunny bench with some cheese", as if to agree with my reckoning that this is quite close to perfection.

A perfect spot for lunch
After lunch, I continue downhill towards the huts of Tannalp. I cross a hidden little valley marked on the map as Schnuer; here the snow is immaculate, crossed by the single track made by the skis of the woman who admired my lunch spot. In a few days' time, no doubt there will be hundreds of ski and snowshoe tracks criss-crossing the valley in all directions, but for today the snow is still almost undisturbed.

Virgin snow, imposing peaks
Tannalp, by contrast, is busy. Several paths converge here and the mountain restaurant is doing a roaring trade. I could simply follow the main valley path back to my starting point from here, but snowshoe tracks lead on up onto the ridge on the south side of the valley. It is still early – only half past one – and I decide to follow these tracks, thus making my walk a full circle. This ridge is much gentler than the one on the north side of the valley, with no cliffs, just rounded humps and bumps that descend to the perfectly flat surface of the frozen Tannensee, where the last humps lay like huge, beached whales.

The frozen Tannensee
The climb up onto the ridge is tougher going than I expected. The afternoon has become very warm, the sun is full in my face, and after-lunch drowsiness does not help. Most difficult though is the sheer amount of fresh snow. Most people seem to have crossed the ridge in the other direction, taking this section downhill, each making his or her own tracks. As a result, there is no single track of compressed snow to ease the ascent, and I sink into the powder with every laboured step. Eventually though, having dropped down to 1974 metres at Tannalp, I climb back up to the rounded summit of Gumm, at an altitude of 2052 metres. The view from here is amazing, with the Tällistock just opposite, the cliffs of the Glogghüs ahead and, way off in the distance, the principal summits of the Bernese Oberland. Behind me, down across a wooded area, is another frozen lake; this is the lovely Engstlensee where I spent a night during my attempt on the Alpine Pass Route back in 2010. It seems a very long time ago. Several people are on the summit, admiring the view and recovering from the hot slog of the ascent.

The way up to Gumm. Glogghüs in the background
I continue along the ridge for a while from Gumm, but leave it just before reaching the ski-lift at Erzegg. I descend down slopes of virgin snow, not steep enough to be dangerous but steep enough to be fun, describing a great arc as I loop back down a little valley towards the Melchsee. Another few minutes and I am back in civilisation, sharing the last few hundred metres with cross-country and downhill skiers, children on sledges and people just out for a walk on the snow. The ugly blockhouse of the "Lodge and Spa" proves to have a magnificent terrace overlooking the lake, made all the more magnificent by the fact that the blockhouse itself is not in view when you are actually there. I order a small beer and get a large one, the waiter apologising for the fact that they have run out of small glasses, "but I'll only charge you for what you ordered". I am definitely not going to complain, and the waiter gets a good tip. The afternoon sun is starting to set, but for the moment the terrace is still warm and sunny, as the lower ski slopes begin to sink into the projected shadow of the Glogghüs. A man who appears to be the owner of the hotel is chatting to a couple at the next table. The couple are enthusing about the weather, the owner comments: "We've been waiting for a day like this for three months".
This valley takes me back to my starting point

I get the cable car back down to Stöckalp, already cold and dark in the shadowy valley. The driver of the post bus that takes me down to Sarnen is a cheerful, chatty man in his sixties. Seeing that his windscreen is misting up, he starts by wondering over the loudspeaker if there might not be an attractive young lady on the bus who could lend him a hair-dryer for a few minutes. Then, on the road down, he keeps up a continuous stream of announcements, pointing out things of interest along the way: a herd of chamois up there on the hillside, an old Victorian hotel, the names of the surrounding mountains. He tells some kind of story about a rock high up on the Pilatus that is shaped like a bishop's head; the story may or may not be dirty, my Swiss German is not quite good enough for me to work it out. By the time we reach the railway station at Sarnen, everybody on the crowded bus is laughing, smiling, chatting to complete strangers. Just as it is about to end, it would seem that this winter has finally thrown up a perfect day for everyone.

13 January 2014

On the Rigi with snowshoes… but where's the snow?

Time: 3 hours
Grading: T1
Height gain: 530 metres
Height loss: 420 metres

Klösterli – Schwändli – Rigi Kulm – Rigi Kaltbad

Over the last two years, I have seen the Rigi from pretty much every possible angle, have walked along its steep southern slopes, have passed it by boat, train and car. But until now, I had never actually walked up to its highest point, the 1798-metre Rigi Kulm. Today seems like a good opportunity: more than a month since my last excursion into the mountains, I am definitely not up for anything too strenuous, especially given that all the excesses of Christmas were packed into that period!

A thick layer of cloud covers Zug, but I know that up above, I will find blue sky, sun and stunning views. It's surprisingly warm; since the cold snap that brought snow at the end of November, the weather has been mild and there has been no more significant snowfall. After enthusing over the early heavy snowfalls, everyone is now complaining about the lack of the white stuff. Still, up on the Rigi I am confident that there should still be plenty of snow.

I meet a friend at the station, and we get the mainline train to Goldau, then the little rack railway that climbs steeply up the Rigi's eastern slopes. Very quickly we break clear of the clouds and emerge into the sun. But where is the snow? The more the train climbs, the more we wonder how high we are going to have to go to reach the grass/snow limit. There are a few patches in places where the railway runs below steep, sheltering rock faces, but on the west-facing slopes that we will be climbing, there is hardly any sign of snow at all, the hillsides are green.

Rigi-Hochflue and Dossen... more snow on that side of the valley
We leave the train at Klösterli, at an altitude of 1302 metres. The tiny village – not much more than a hotel and a chapel – is in the shade of a steep, wooded hillside. Despite the total absence of fresh snow, the path is treacherous here. The countless feet that have passed since the last real snowfall have flattened the surface of the path into a block of solid ice, and for twenty minutes or so the going is quite unpleasant, until we have crossed the stream at the bottom of the valley and started to climb the sunny slopes on its far side.

Very quickly, we have to stop to remove excess clothing. I have dressed for winter – thermal underwear, two fleeces, neck-warmer, gloves – but the conditions are more like a particularly warm early spring day. Gloves, mufflers and one fleece are consigned to the bottom of my backpack for the rest of the day. As for our snowshoes… well, they remain attached to our packs, where they will stay for the full duration of this walk: at no time is there sufficient snow to do anything more than carry them uselessly.

Patchy snow at 1470 metres, with the Mythen range and the central Swiss Alps in the background
Luckily, the warmth of the day, the sunshine, the blue sky and the sharp, limpid air are more than ample compensation for the shortage of snow underfoot. As we climb gradually up towards Ober Schwändli, the view becomes ever wider and more impressive. Over the other side of the Rigiaa valley, the narrow summit of the Dossen is the landmark feature, its steep east-facing slopes still carrying a total covering of snow, its outlying ridges carrying cornices as they run down towards the valley. At the farmhouse of Ober Schwändli, 1473 metres, the view opens up suddenly and in a most spectacular manner to the south-east. At our feet, a sea of cloud covers the Muota plain, the town of Schwyz and the Urner See. Sticking up out of the cloud in the foreground are the Grosser and Kleiner Mythen – omnipresent in this part of the country, they seem to be in every single view – in front of a backdrop of hundreds of mountains that I could not even begin to list.

We continue quite steeply uphill. The snow to grass ratio is starting to lean in the snow's favour, so we zigzag a fair bit in search of the easier grassy areas, as there is still not enough snow to justify putting the snowshoes on. Over to the east, the hills around the Ägerisee are just about sticking up out of the clouds; it looks like it would be possible to reach the summit of the Wildspitz without setting foot on snow at all. Rarely if ever have I seen so little snow in mid-January. Above the Chäserenholzhütte, our route joins a sledging track down which quite a few people are hurtling, despite the very thin covering of snow. Swiss children seem to be born not only with skis on their feet but also with sledges under their bottoms; they seem to know exactly what to do, racing at top speed downhill towards inevitable disaster as the next hairpin approaches, then negotiating the bend effortlessly at the last minute with a subtle shift in body weight. It's all very unfair. The number of adults sledging is also surprising: in the UK, such activities are strictly for the under-10s, but here, everyone is allowed to join in the fun.

A sea of bubbly cloud, out of which the snowless Rossberg sticks
We reach the summit, most conveniently, at lunchtime. As this is supposed to be very much a relaxing day's walk, we have not brought picnics along with us, but have decided to eat in the restaurant at the top. A table with a stupendous view, a Rigi-Wurst with chips, a bottle of white wine, what more could one ask for?

The Pilatus from Rigi-Kulm
Nourished and slightly light-headed from the combination of wine and physical effort, we set off downhill, following the broad tourist tracl that runs down alongside the tracks of the Rigi-Vitznau railway. As the path steepens, we seem to be about to dive into the sea of fog down below. Beyond Rigi-Staffel, the path enters a shady section and, once again, there are some uncomfortable sections where the absence of snow has turned the path into an ice rink. But it's only a short way from there to Kaltbad and the end of our gentle Sunday walk. We contemplate the ide of going to the thermal baths, but instead settle for a cable-car ride down to Weggis, re-entering the cloud layer halfway down and emerging below it into a totally different world; grey, cold, wintry. We have 40 minutes to wait before the boat leaves for Lucerne, time which we put to good use by protecting ourselves against the cold with a strong dose of Kaffee-Zwetschge. Sometimes, walking in the mountains becomes more about eating, drinking and looking lazily at the view… no harm in that to start the new year's hiking!

01 December 2013

Start of the snowshoe season above Wirzweli

Time: 3.5 hours
Grading: WT1
Height gain: 450 metres
Height loss: 450 metres

Wirzweli – Langboden - Chienerenegg - Aecherli - Wirzweli

Winter has come early this year. We say this every year of course; there is always a November snowfall that catches everyone unawares, summer tyres still on the car and summer clothes still in the wardrobe. The difference this year is that the first November snow has been followed by ten days of cold weather and more snow.

It feels too early to be getting the snowshoes out – in fact it is the earliest in the season I have done so in all my 15 years in Switzerland, and the first time in the first half of December since a memorable, perfect day up above Habkern in 2008. But the alternative is staying at home in the fog, and I know that if I do that I will end up working, so I yesterday evening I forced myself to prepare everything so that I would not have any excuses.

The weather forecast is for fog up to somewhere between 1500 and 1800 metres, with sun above. I am therefore surprised to wake to blue sky and deep, crisp cold, which soon rekindles my enthusiasm to get into the mountains. It's an illusion though: the train enters a bank of fog between Cham and Rotkreuz, and stays in it all the way to Lucerne and beyond. I leave the train at Dallenwil, from where is a fairly strenuous 15-minute uphill walk to the bottom station of the Wirzweli cable-car. The ski slopes are not open yet, and there are only four of us in the cable car. A man asks me a question which I have to ask him to repeat four times before I understand what he is saying… he has forgotten to buy a ticket for the car-park and is asking whether I know if he is likely to get fined. I really must improve my Swiss German…

The cable car takes me up to 1220 metres, where there is already plenty of snow but also plenty of fog – in fact the top station of the cableway seems to be right in the thickest part of it. I am however pretty confident that it will clear, as the cloud layer does not seems to be very think, and I have seen the sun poking through here and there. I follow a snow-covered road for a couple of kilometres until the marked snowshoe trail veers off to the left, climbing up across a sloping field between two lines of trees. Ahead, I am instantly rewarded for having made the effort to not just stay at hone, as the fog breaks to reveal the rocky summit of the Stanserhorn immediately ahead. The view is fleeting though; the fog comes back down as the path enters the forest, and gradually thickens as I climb.

First taste of winter, with the Stanserhorn up ahead
This was supposed to be an easy introduction to the winter season, but I soon realise that it might be a bit tougher than I had anticipated. It snowed yesterday, and very few walkers have preceded me this morning. There is a visible trace, but it has been made by no more than two or three people, and the deep powder snow is still loose and slippery, not yet packed down by the passage of snowshoes. Having done no exercise of any kind for a month, I am soon huffing, puffing and sweating despite the cold. The atmosphere lightens again though, and suddenly the fog clears completely to reveal a magical, pure winter landscape, not yet spoilt by multiple ski or snowshoe tracks.

The path that I am following begins to climb more steeply now, winding up the side of a still forest whose trees are already heavily laden with snow. Just below, the three or four houses of a little farming hamlet look cold and lonely… the map tells me that the place is called Loch, which means hole in German. The hamlet is in a shadowy hollow that is surely the origin of the name. In the shade the cold is biting, but the effort of this uphill walking in loose powder keeps me well and truly warm. The top of the fog layer is not far below me, with the rocky Stanserhorn and the pyramidal Buochserhorn poking up out of it. 

Loch, in the shade even at midday
Just above the fog. In the background, the Buochserhorn
Above this steep section, the path traverses below a snowy ridge, gently rising, then doubles back to reach the crest of the ridge. Here, beck in the sun, it feels warm enough (and definitely time) for lunch; the concrete surround of a snow-filled cattle trough offers a few dry square centimetres to sit while I drink my soup and eat my sandwiches. Away in the distance, impressively white against a deep blue sky, is the Brisen, my highest summit of the summer just past. The sharpness of the Haldigrat, the ridge that runs westwards down from the summit towards the Engelberg valley, is accentuated by the snow, transforming it into a serrated knife-edge. Just below me is the broad Ächerlipass, the cantonal boundary between Nidwalden and Obwalden, today also operating as a fog barrier: the Obwalden side to my left is a grey mire of cloud, but it cannot quite break over to the other side, the few trees on the crest of the ridge seem to be holding it back. 

I drop down steeply now through perfect powder snow, down towards the pass and the fog which seems to rise to meet me. By the time I reach the Ächerlipass with its farmhouse, I am walking in a strange atmosphere where the sun is clearly visible overhead, yet visibility at ground level is less than a hundred metres. I continue along the ridge for another quarter of an hour to a hump with a large cross erected at its highest point, just below the steep lower slopes of the Stanserhorn. I could go further, but it is two o'clock and the fog seems to be here to stay this time, so I decide to head back for the valley. 

Steeply downhill again now, following a well-trodden and signposted snowshoe route. As I get lower, the fact that this is still early winter becomes apparent; the snow is fantastic but there is not quite enough of it yet, and I can feel unevenness below my feet where rocks are barely covered by the powder. The fog lifts once again, unexpectedly, just as the sun is disappearing behind the mountains, giving some very nice light and shadow effects. Soon the tracks bring me back to the point where I started my climb this morning, and twenty minutes later I am back at the top station of the cable car. It has been a short but fairly strenuous walk with some stunning scenery, all in all a good start to the winter season.